The meaning of the 'Oval' Office

In the room with two centers of power, there's a place for us, too.

Eric Draper/White House/Reuters
Seats of power: President Bush and President-elect Obama met in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 10.

The precedent for oval rooms in American affairs of state can be traced to George Washington. He modified chambers in the President's House in Philadelphia with bowed ends so that guests at formal receptions could all stand equidistant to the president. It was a symbolic expression of democracy.

While the current Oval Office goes back to President Franklin Roosevelt, the White House's first Oval Office was occupied by William Howard Taft in 1909. He avoided the rectangular room used by Theodore Roosevelt, relocated the presidential office to a central position in the West Wing, and opted for the oval.

The repositioning of the president's office signified the central position of the presidency. But here's the funny thing about ovals, or, in geometric terms, ellipses: Unlike circles, which are defined by a single center, ovals are defined by two key points, each, appropriately, called a "focus."

A focal point is a two-way juncture – a spot not only of radiance, but also convergence, the position that "takes the heat." Leaders often deserve the glare of public criticism. But we should also remember that they are not aliens who've arrived by spaceships. They are us.

Yet during elections, undue hope blazes forth from ardent supporters. They project their light onto the candidates whose every action is a petition to their anonymous authority. The candidates reflect that focused light back as their own. The electorate, seeing hope and power as uniquely beyond themselves, get caught in a spell of their own making. Everything seems to revolve around the president.

But the seat of power, the Oval Office, has that other, unseen focal point, as if to indicate a room with two "centers" of responsibility. Could that be our spot in the room? Democracy, after all, is self-government. When the spell of the campaign is inevitably broken, we awake to learn anew the lesson of projecting all hopes and responsibilities, and the cost of not taking our position.

Currently, our greatest surplus is in difficulties, with an ever-growing list of designated villains – predatory lenders, oil companies, polluters, illegal immigrants, politicians, Iran, China, greedy CEOs, car companies, and so on.

Maybe saints are rarer in many of these groups, but that fact alone does not exonerate the rest of us as victimized innocents. Either we are completely passive dependents, or else we share responsibility in shaping the world. And with responsibility comes a share of the blame.

The candidates hold the public accountable at their own peril. They can have our vote if they don't make us look too hard at ourselves. If they propose programs and bailouts as painless as possible, treating symptoms rather than root causes, then we can remain safe in our freedoms, free to point, free of blame.

Democracy is a work in progress. Its imperfections mirror our blind spots. Each age has its blind spots, exposed and magnified mostly through history's lens. The same presidential house in Philadelphia that employed the beautiful symbolism of democracy also had slave quarters. Can we be certain that contemporary life has transcended any remaining counterfeits and abuses of freedom? And if not, then can we be certain that such abuses are not fertilizing the roots of our overgrown difficulties?

Perhaps there is wisdom in calling it the Oval Office. The word "ellipse" derives from a Greek root meaning "defect" and "falling short," as in not being a perfect circle. "Oval" comes from the Latin ovum, "egg," – birth and new beginnings, a place where our greatest aspirations might hatch and take wings.

President-elect Obama will soon occupy the desk at one of the Oval Office's focal points. He campaigned emphasizing the word "we." Like all presidents, his power will have its limits. Like all presidents, he will need our help. We, too, must exercise rightful government, even in the privacy of our daily thoughts and actions. By doing so, we make the move along with the new president, confident there is also a spot reserved for the American people in the room with two centers.

David Arzouman is an artist, composer, writer, and educator who's developing a new art school in Tokyo.

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